UNC’s Chief Global Officer Joins World Leaders to Mark 25 years of Peace in Northern Ireland
May 10, 2023
UNC Global Affairs
Barbara Stephenson, vice provost for global affairs and chief global officer, poses next to a Senator George Mitchell bust. Mitchell was appointed by President Clinton to help broker peace in Northern Ireland. He became the architect of the Good Friday Agreement.
Barbara Stephenson, UNC-Chapel Hill’s vice provost for global affairs and chief global officer, joined current and former world leaders in Belfast, Northern Ireland April 17-19 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. A former U.S. ambassador, Stephenson served as U.S. consul general in Belfast from 2001-2004.
The Good Friday Agreement, signed April 10, 1998, ended decades of political violence known as the Troubles in Northern Ireland and opened the way to peace and new economic development.
“The peace process in Northern Ireland is widely seen today as a triumph of modern diplomacy,” said Barbara Stephenson. “The 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement is a powerful reminder that we know how to do this, that diplomacy can be effective at resolving violent conflict.”
Carolina’s partner Queen’s University Belfast hosted the Agreement 25 Conference, a three-day convening of international leaders, featuring sessions with authors of the Good Friday Agreement, political heads and diplomats.
Former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, who served as the U.S. special representative for Northern Ireland and helped broker the Agreement, gave the opening keynote. Hillary Rodham Clinton—who holds an appointment as chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast—chaired a panel on the role of guarantors to uphold the Agreement with former U.S. President Bill Clinton, former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland Bertie Ahern. The conference closed with a keynote address by U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
Stephenson also joined a private luncheon recognizing “Women Leading Change” hosted by Clinton and a dinner at Hillsborough Castle hosted by Sunak for a historic gathering of people who contributed to the negotiation and implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.
Carolina’s Krista Northup, director of global partnerships, and Navin Bapat, chair of the Peace, War & Defense Curriculum, attended the Agreement 25 conference as well. Queen’s University Belfast arranged an extra day of meetings and visits to historic sites for the UNC-Chapel Hill delegation and other U.S. university partners. Bapat received a Global Partnership Award from the Office of the Vice Provost for Global Affairs to expand UNC-Chapel Hill’s partnership with Queen’s University Belfast.
“We’re excited about the potential for growth with our partnership with QUB,” said Northup. “We have a strong foundation of activity to build on and this visit highlighted many more opportunities for both student exchange and collaborative research.”
During her time as consul general, Stephenson helped renew support for the Good Friday Agreement and maintain momentum for the peace process, including efforts toward police reform and integrated education to bring Catholic and Protestant students together.
The religion-based segregation among Northern Ireland schools predates the founding of the state in 1921. But according to a 2021 survey, 71% of people in the country believe integrated education should be the ‘main model’ for Northern Ireland’s education system. Still, due to a variety of factors, schools remain divided – but Stephenson is encouraged by signs of progress.
“One leader of the integrated education movement pulled me aside to share the news of legislation passed that should—finally—move the needle and give parents and students who want an integrated education option a significantly better chance of having an integrated school available.”
During her time in Belfast, Stephenson championed what became known as the “shared future” agenda, drawing on her own experience in the segregated South to make the case that while change may be hard, it is worth the effort. When former President Barack Obama then visited Belfast a decade later during her time as acting U.S. ambassador to the U.K., Stephenson was able to script a speech in Belfast, with students introducing the Obamas, at which the president took up the “shared future” theme and kept the effort alive.
In the years since Stephenson’s tenure as consul general, she has seen numerous challenges to peace in Northern Ireland, but the peace has held, and a generation has grown to adulthood with no first-hand memory of violence, said the former ambassador. Gratitude for the U.S. role in the peace process was a major theme of the 25th anniversary celebrations, which included events in the States. Stephenson moderated a panel discussion of the U.S. role in the peace process hosted by the Consulate General of Ireland in Atlanta and The Carter Center on May 4. According to Stephenson, Northern Ireland’s experience shows that diplomacy can lead to lasting peace, an encouraging message for other parts of the world engulfed in conflict.
“The Northern Ireland peace talks themselves, and the years of work implementing the peace agreement, serve as a prime example of successful global problem solving,” said Stephenson. “It was a joy to see our partners at Queen’s University Belfast shine a spotlight on this success. I hope that, through a strengthened partnership with QUB, Carolina can offer more of our students a chance to learn from this success to better prepare them to solve the set of grand challenges that awaits the next generation.”